Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Obfuscation: What I Meant Was…

I had to laugh a little as I read my post here from the other day, and felt at least some explanation was probably in order. It read like something I would have written five years ago, abstract to the point of frustration. Good writing, at least in my books, speaks plain and grounds itself in concrete examples. Winter is Coming was, in some ways, an experiment in tone. (It was supposed to FEEL like a snowfall, if that makes sense) Even then, I felt I owed you all, if not an explanation, a quick summary of what I was trying to express.

As I've mentioned here before, I've spent the past four months world-building for my fantasy novel. It's creative work, but it isn't story telling. Not exactly. (Although one could argue that building histories and cultures for countries is still story telling, it has a much wider lens than working on the main narrative of a single novel.) Good fantasy explores not only the cultural and historical makeup of a new world, but looks at the human condition through use of another world. A good fantasist does this in the construction of their world and through their characters. In other words, magic isn't just magic, and the hero's quest is more than the story of a boy or a girl who learns they have special powers. Not all fantasies achieve this (and there's no way of knowing whether I'll be able to, either) but the good ones do. Fantasy is similar to TV shows like Mad Men that use the forty year culture gap to explore ideas that matter to us now. Ultimately, it's about perspective. Reading fiction, specifically good fantasy, is not only entertaining (if the story sucks, nothing else matters), it should also make us think. Think about who we are and who we're becoming. Think about ideas of eternity and religion and culture. That fantasy and science fiction are growing in popularity should be no surprise to those who pay attention to the culture and how it is changing.
Most of us talk about the speed and shallowness of our culture, recognize it on some level, but tend to simply put our heads down and get on with our lives. We have families and jobs and it's all we can do to keep up. We Facebook and Twitter our thoughts in two or three sentences, skim the headlines, surf the television, all at a speed that would make our grandparents blanche. As a result, neurologists tell us that our brains are changing. Our attention spans aren't what they used to be, and the thought of spending time really digging more deeply into a hot topic or a novel seems like a great deal of work. What not let Stewart or Beck or O'Reilly to give it to me in chunks I can absorb, and do it in a way that's entertaining? We do it in the church as well, waiting for mega-pastors and bloggers to explain difficult theological nuances in witty and pejorative terms. Technology widens our scope of learning, but narrows our perspective. And from my chair, that is far more dangerous.

The Horizontal world I spoke of, and forgive the fantasy construction here, is the world of rationalism and logic. It's your everyday world, the one where we listen to the radio and chat with friends and absorb the evening news. It's the world in which we go to church and listen to the sermon and sing our songs just in time to watch the NFL or take the kids to the park. It is the world we see and hear and touch. But it isn't the only world out there.

What's ridiculous to me, and I include myself here, is the amount of time wasted in arguing why our beliefs are better than our neighbours. Go to most religious websites and you can find discussions about particular doctrines that are neither grounded nor gentle. Mostly, it's a bunch of strangers insisting that they're right, dammit. To what end? Is that our life then? Is that our religion of choice? Any religion that is based on its ability to distinguish itself from other religions is missing the whole damn point. Look, to pompously argue about the correct form of theology within a philosophy that accepts the supernatural is self-serving garbage. It may make us feel better, but in the end it's as useful as two water dishes for your dog. For heaven's sake, at least tell us that you were just too lazy to refill the one dish. Don't offer us these self-righteous excuses about why everyone should own two dishes.

That'll be the goal here as we go forward, and I promise in the future to speak plainly and not obfuscate. We may disagree, but hopefully you won't be re-reading sentences wondering what I was trying to say.

Religion can a great tool for justifying our behaviour. Slavery? Done. Racism? Yup. Mistreatment of women and gays? Absolutely. Environmental degradation and hatred and self righteous pandering? Sure. It's all in there. But let me say this clearly: the person who reflects compassion and empathy, the one who works hard to give to others and sacrifices to make the world a better place, the one who tries to love people and tries to be gracious, that person knows God better than any so-called person of faith who can articulate the seven rules of sanctification and mouth the correct sequence of statements regarding the proper belief structure. We religiously minded people do that for the same reason we want two dishes for our dog: because we can and because we're lazy. So this week, if you get a chance, take some time away from the bustle of the world to think about things. Think about who you are and what you want to become. Think about eternity and religion and our culture. Spend some quiet time in prayer and meditation. We shouldn't spend all of our time in those worlds, it isn't healthy, as we are social beings after all. But if we don't go there at least occasionally, we're bound to miss some of the beauty and mystery of life, and perhaps miss the good things God has in mind for us, religious or not.

-Steve